The drive-thru line at Starbucks moved more slowly than usual.

My “Grandes” at the top of Central Street are so frequent the employees know my voice and name. The service is always great and the coffee reviving. But there were glitches in the backup of cars ahead of me a few weeks ago and by the time I got to the pick-up window I was running late and wanted to move on.

With cash in hand I reached for my order.

“Not necessary, Charlie,” the server said.

“Huh?” I replied.             

“The car ahead of you covered it.” She smiled, raising her hands and eyebrows.              

“You gotta be kidding,” I said.

“The driver told me to tell you, ‘Enjoy – and pass it on.’”

I sat there a moment, letting in what was happening. The slow-moving line and my running late were no longer issues. I needed to say “Thanks,” but the car in front of me had gone. I laughed, shook my head and said, “Wow!”

I dropped a dollar in the tip box and drove off thinking that I should have left more. But my thinking did not stop there. I thought of the proverbial butterfly’s wing.

I was touched by a stranger’s generosity – and received much more than a free cup of coffee. My mood lifted, my pace slowed and I learned some lessons about giving – maybe more about receiving – that I would keep in mind, especially for the holidays ahead:

Unexpected gifts can say more than expected ones;

It is not the size of the gift but the surprise that matters;

Sufficient thanks can go in many directions;

The pleasure of giving need not be shared to be known, and the pleasure of receiving need not be known to be shared;

A recipient’s gratitude is just as important as a giver’s generosity – even when neither can be acknowledged.

My freebie coffee tasted extra-special that morning. Whoever thought to give me a surprise, gave me that indeed – and a whole lot more. Since then I have passed that random act of kindness on, as I am doing now, in a way.

The gift of surprise trumps expectations every time. And when there are no expectations, as in my drive-thru experience, the gift can come wrapped with insights. The driver in front of me may never know that his or her gift is lasting far longer than my cup of coffee – or how many other gifts their thoughtfulness prompted.

The butterfly’s wing ripples more than air.